More rural-urban unity is needed

Published 7:26 am Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Reduce health insurance costs, even if it takes a public insurance option to do it. More widely available high-speed internet service. Safe and sufficient roads and bridges. Adequate funding for nursing homes. More effort to combat rural hunger. Local flexibility in enforcing the 2015 buffer strip requirement near public waters.

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Those are the leading items on a policy agenda delivered to the Legislature last week by the Minnesota Farmers Union, summarizing 14 listening sessions that engaged 450 participants to respond to the question, “What Do Rural People Think?”

That’s a politically compelling question for the DFL Party and its allies in the progressive Farmers Union. The stark rural/urban divide seen in the last two legislative elections and the 2016 presidential race persists, an April 24-26 Minnesota Poll shows. It found that President Trump’s performance is viewed favorably by 53 percent of those polled in northern Minnesota and 50 percent in the southern half of Greater Minnesota — compared with just 24 percent in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

That explains why the Farmers Union sessions attracted DFL Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and several Dayton administration commissioners. The party with Farmer in its name hopes to shore up a strained connection with the country.

What they heard in red-voting places like Alexandria, Little Falls and Isanti may puzzle them. The policies described as desirable by meeting participants don’t vary greatly from the positions staked out by DFL legislative candidates — who nevertheless lost the election.

Clearly, voting decisions can turn on more than policy analysis. The listening sessions also gave vent to the view that rural Minnesota has been “left behind” and ignored by state politicians, said Gary Wertish, a Renville farmer and Minnesota Farmers Union president since January. “They feel that the metro area has too much voice, and they aren’t being heard.”

That’s a sentiment that’s easily fueled by politicians on a mission to divide and conquer. Population and income growth in the Twin Cities has outstripped that of Greater Minnesota in this decade, while partisan gridlock at the State Capitol has blocked public investments that might have been particularly helpful outside the metro area.

As Wertish explained, when funding isn’t sufficient for a basic government service such as transportation, it’s easy to convince rural people that the transportation dollars they need must be going to the Twin Cities. But the facts tell a different story. Greater Minnesota residents get a much larger share of state highway funding than they pay in transportation taxes, a Star Tribune analysis found in March.

But what we especially appreciated about the 14 listening sessions is that most of the priorities they surfaced are not unique to one region or industry. Health insurance costs are socking the individually insured statewide. Transportation investment is insufficient everywhere. Too many Minnesotans go to bed hungry in the cities as well as the country.

A welcome sequel would be a series of informed dialogues among rural and urban dwellers, convened by some of the many trusted institutions that have a presence throughout the state. A concerted effort is needed to knock down misinformation and stereotypes. Minnesotans need to hear anew how much this state’s rural and urban regions have in common, and how intertwined their fates have always been, and are still.